Can I get an “Amen”?

The good Rev. AKMA has a few words on the temptation to transgress and the value of personal choice.

The argument that intrigues me most is the suggestion that the subsidy creates a questionable “temptation to transgress” — that’s a beautiful point, and I’m attracted to it for heavy theological reasons. Still, what kind of commercial relationship doesn’t entail such a temptation? What relationship of trust doesn’t involve a potential temptation? And what online relationship doesn’t entail potentially corruptive elements? Am I working on this topic, perhaps, thinking that I can win some hot links out of the discussion, or out of the hope that Marc Canter will recommend my twenty readers as a sound investment for Marqui’s next round of subsidies?


I wonder about the creation of temptation being evil. I know it was represented that way in the Bible, but we create choices for ourselves all the time and if capitalism is about anything it’s about creating and making choices. It seems to me that the choice about how to treat the sponsorship is where the ethical line will be crossed or not. I mean, for example, that I believe most of us here, were we employed at Google would have quit before we censored our news aggregator in order to reach a Chinese reader, leaving no one any choices other than the approved one. Marqui put no conditions on the sponsorship other than that it establishes a certain periodicity for mentioning the company, and it is up to us how we do that. I intend to write variations on “Thanks for the sponsorship, check them out so they see the value in continuing to sponsor this blog, decide for yourselves,” as, indeed, I just did.

What we’re seeing is some diversity in the way people are going to do it. I think it’s good that we see diversity in even a little experiment like this. Rather proves the individuality of blogs. Not everyone will do the right thing, but some will—I believe I will—and the whole experiment will not be a failure if one person or five prove to be corrupted by money, which is an interpretation of AKMA’s argument. Comes down to choices of and by one.

Or, to put it another way, in the Lemur we trust.

Dialog on Socratic Media

Lots of good stuff floating around the issue of collaborative editing, which I wrote about yesterday….

Steve Outing has a long and thoughtful piece at Editor & Publisher on the various civic journalist projects going on in newspapers. I particularly like his subhead “It takes a village, and an editor.”

Colin Brayton chimes in at theredactor (The Red Actor, but in this case, the condensed name is most fitting):

Editors are just people trying to figure out what other people need and want to know, and filtering raw data accordingly. We strive to give as full a picture as possible so you’ll turn to our rag first, but it’s an ideal, not really an achievable goal. Really, in the fifteen minutes you have to absorb news, you don’t want everything, you want the important part. And some parts will be more important to some people than they will to others. Still, the more input into the system, the closer we can get to all the news that’s fit to print. That’s why I set up a del.icio.us blog as a model for collective brainstorming for our little operation. No one uses, it of course: We are small enough to just yell things across the room, and journos are a bunch of Luddites, but I find it very useful and try to leverage it to expand my own consciousness of what’s going on, anyhow.

OhMyNews, the Korean citizen journalism company that has become the fifth largest media source in the country is mentioned by several folks. They pay a few bucks for most articles and a professional staff of 38 (only 15 edit full time while the others research and write features) edits and places the stories on sites and on television. OhMyNews is making its first profit this year—all of about $325,000, but that’s remarkable given it was invented from whole cloth. It’s the model we’ve had in mind for Correspondences.org for a long time, though we found out about OhMyNews after we launched, but, so far, the Google ads aren’t even covering the hosting costs….

OhMyNews works because of the selectivity Colin describes, it lends clarity in the midst of the action, which is why every redaction is a value judgment that needs to be considered carefully before and after the fact, so that the process improves. Simply throwing more people at the challenge of covering the news isn’t sufficient to create useful information that people can use in their decision making.

At Google, we’re not evil…

just compliant when it comes to totalitarian governments that control large markets. Google, wake up, helping keep information from 1.3 billion people in order to preserve the Chinese revenue you enjoy is a shocking example of what Hannah Arendt described as “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the government had been blocking Google’s English-language Web site (www.news.google.com) for about 10 days, after Google launched a Chinese-language version that removed politically sensitive reports.

“China is censoring Google News to force Internet users to use the Chinese version of the site, which has been purged of the most critical news reports,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

“By agreeing to launch a news service that excludes publications disliked by the government, Google has let itself be used by Beijing,” the organization added.

Socratic Media: Wikinews & Wikiconsequences

Interesting, this announcement of a citizen journalist-made wiki news site. Network-Centric Advocacy says:

Want to move news. Be a peer-journalist on Wikinews. This will be worth participating in and reading. It is an amazingly cool experiment.

Having run a civic journalism site, Correspondences.org, for the past couple years, I sincerely wonder whether wiki news will be any more informative than any other source. There are a number of reasons why it may be less so.

First, as David Weinberger writes at Release 1.0 today, the problem of separating fact and opinion is susceptible to accretive solutions, such as collaborative editing, but ultimately the final judgment lies with the reader. Weinberger explores how UBio, a collaborative name server system under development by a group of scientists led by David Remsen of the Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, manages disputes over the naming of biological species, following a philosophy of inclusiveness and postponement of judgment calls until all views are heard.

Weinberger cites the news-related example of Wikipedia, where battling versions of reality in the entry for George W. Bush have led to a lock-down on changes to the article, which strives for neutrality. Pro- and anti-Bush contributors were injecting opinions into the articles so often that no definitive version was available.

Wikipedia gets much of its value from the fact that when many people filter an article, the bogus and the partisan tend to be dropped. But where the division between facts and values can be made fairly cleanly, the strategy of inclusion and postponement gives rich access to the known facts while putting the decision about values and opinions into the proper hands: those of the individual.

Reporting, like writing history, is a subjective experience even under the best of conditions. A reader depending on a single source of news never gets all the facts, they must explore many sources to assemble even part of the picture. There is, too often these days, a tendency among news outlets to quote one another so that there is a perception conveyed that there is a single version of events, when such a thing seldom exists. If you look at the transcript of an event, even a government transcript, they may be edited differently. For example, the “record” of a Bush campaign speech posted at WhiteHouse.gov, with applause and “boos” aimed at the opponent inserted, will read very differently than an “objective” transcript without those audience reactions noted; moreover, if the opposition releases a transcript of the same event, it may insert different reactions, such as the interruption by a heckler. Which is the correct or full record? None of them.

I think Wikipedia produces great articles on a variety of subjects—the collaborative process is an excellent way to churn out explanations of things and events—but the Bush entry, which is timely due to the fact he is still in office, is sterile and rather kind to the most controversial and divisive president we’ve had in decades. It offers details about Bush’s fraternity, baseball and rugby play and the name of the officer that recommended his promotion in the Air National Guard, but passes over whether he served under the terms of his enlistment with a comment that “These issues were publicized during the 2004 campaign by Texans for Truth and other Bush critics. See George W. Bush military service controversy for details.”

Granted, one could follow the link about the service controversy, but given the intensity with which Bush attacked his rivals’ military records throughout both his presidential runs (covered in only three paragraphs further down in the article), an unbiased editor would, in my opinion, have done more with the subject in the context of Bush’s biography rather than outside of it.

Here’s where I disagree with elements of David Weinberger’s conclusion that the decision about values and opinions must be left to the individual; this is impossible if the medium reduces facts to a single report. We don’t rely on the individual to decide much of anything in these days of mass marketing and, yet, this is the reality we live with and it is impossible to wish it away. Some filtering and decision-making is necessary if the reader is not going to be forced to consume all versions of events in order to achieve full knowledge and judge every aspect of the event and its impact on other aspects of life before coming to an informed decision. Any act of redaction inserts some value judgment into our perceptions and we need to be aware of it. An article deemed neutral and objective is deeply subjective, especially if it is designed not to offend (which is what the Bush bio on Wikipedia seems to accomplish almost entirely).

As journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists or civic journalists, we need to acknowledge the obligation to examine our own subjectivity and point it out as frequently as possible. Having been cloaked behind a veil of professionalism and craving the spotlight of celebrity for half a century, journalism has largely forgotten that essential elements of the practice of recording events is humility and scathing self-examination.

I believe David Weinberger aspires to exactly this kind of self-aware media, but the path to it won’t lead through the poppy fields that sing “trust the reader to sort it all out” as we fall into a gentle sleep halfway to the Emerald City. We are, like it or not, still very much in Kansas.

Take a look at the history of American anti-American witch hunts. The record of the U.S. government during World War I and immediately after, when a fear of communism was sweeping the nation, was reported very differently during the McCarthy era by distinguished historians than by those same historians in the 1970s, because the current environment in which those events were interpreted had changed. The internment of German-born American citizens during World War I and Japanese during World War II is now treated as a regrettable necessity by contemporary commentators, many of whom would have condemned those events before Sept. 11, 2001.

You can see an example of this subjectivity in the historical assessments of Joe McCarthy himself, who is being lionized by the far right to prop up Bush-era policies today.

Life itself is subjective to the extent that everyone experiences it through their own senses, not a shared sensory system providing objective readings of our surroundings, and filters it through their personal history. A husband and wife arguing see things differently. A cop and a protester see things differently. The mayor and the city clerk. Billy, who hit Tommy because he called him a “booger eater,” had a different experience than Tommy, who is crying. It depends what you mean by “is.” One man’s rule is another man’s excuse. Lenny Bruce describes this perfectly in his version of the social contract story:

‘Let’s see. I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll have a vote. We’ll sleep in area A, is that cool?’ – ‘Okay, good.’ – ‘We’ll eat in area B. Good?’ – ‘Good.’ – ‘We’ll throw a crap in area C. Good?’ – ‘Good.’ Simple rules. So, everything went along pretty cool, you know, everybody’s very happy. One night everybody was sleeping, one guy woke up, Pow! He got a faceful of crap, and he said: ‘Hey, what’s the deal here, I thought we had a rule: Eat, Sleep, and Crap, and I was sleeping and I got a faceful of crap…’ So they said, ‘Well, ah, the rule was substantive -‘

A news report about the situation in the Ukraine today would be very different depending on whether the witness were standing among the Yanukovich or Yushchenko partisans. But readers need both sides of the story to understand it, and neither side is right or wrong, rather they see things differently. It’s up to the reader to decide which side they think should win the conflict over leadership of the Ukraine or if they even care.

The challenge for a reporter is to take those views and the “supporting evidence” each side provides in order to verify claims of fact. it’s something the press barely did in our election, so it’s hard to imagine it happening in coverage of the Ukrainian election crisis, either. Nevertheless, that is what reporters do when they have adequate resources and high integrity. At Correspondences.org during the past two year, where there have been about 90 contributors at most times, we have had citizen reporters take up opposite sides of stories only two or three times, because so few people have the time or wherewithal to report a story, even from their own perspective. Nevertheless, we can count on comments to inject partisan analysis into a story (the site is Movable Type-based, supporting blog comments).

This is not to argue that the blog format is better for relating the news, only to explain that the WikiNews approach may not be appropriate to sheering fact from fiction.

In a medium defined by timeliness—news, as compared to an encyclopedia article, which can be authored over months or years—collaborative editing is not likely to result in objective reports, but rather a battle of perspectives very much like the starkly partisan George W. Bush articles authors produced at Wikipedia that resulted in the editing interface being locked down. In a situation where the reader needs information quickly in order to make a judgment about events or their role in them, the collaborative approach to authoring information may be too slow.

We have a tendency in the United States these days to assume the collective opinion of the majority is the closest to correct, yet we seldom examine the differences of opinion themselves objectively. This leaves the individual faced with limited time and a desire to find some truth to decide about the sources they trust, each offering their own “neutral” and “objective” view of events. A wiki-based news source that became a “wiki of record” for events could contribute to the establishment of echo chambers just as easily as a major newspaper or television network that becomes the sole source of news for an audience.

Readers often tend to identify a few sources they trust until such time as those sources disappoint them; but they don’t review all their beliefs that were built on the representation of reality provided by the source, only what disappointed them, since people are not accustomed to deconstructing their views with any regularity.

A media that did offer different opinions in full and with extensive supporting information side-by-side with all other opinions would better prepare people for the difficult process of defining and redefining their values and opinions throughout their lives. Call it the Socratic Media, but I am sure the unexamined life is not worth living.

This begs the question, why with unlimited bandwidth and storage capacity, couldn’t multiple versions of the Bush biography (not just the history of edits and abuses by all comers) be posted with equal access and a little context on Wikipedia? This constitutes the best of the inclusive approach UBio uses, since history will ultimately judge Bush and then change it’s mind again and again and again. Multiple versions of the Bush story, say from the Bush side, the Center for Freedom and Progress (Democratic), as well as views from foreign writers that may emphasize Bush’s foreign policy decisions, could be presented in an index and a patient and interested reader would be able to digest the different views and decide for themselves. One article about Bush is the problem, not the solution to the problem of describing Bush. Thinking that an article can be finished is another problem, because we’ve entered a time when news, because of its relationship to history and the ease and rapidity of editing and publication, is never complete.

That process, though, takes time and the news cycles are fast-paced. We seldom look back at what happened last week, let alone a month ago or a year ago. Collaborative editing of a definitive story about events in this environment is nearly impossible and it would be better to offer multiple views than a refined version. If WikiNews editors acted as a peer-review committee and called out shortcomings in fact-checking or the accuracy of facts, this could be a powerful enhancement to multiple versions of events that helped the reader decide for themselves what actually happened. But reducing a report to a single version, especially based on contributions from people who were not actually there to record the event, is of questionable value.

News is expensive, which is why it has suffered under the yoke of increasingly profit-driven companies. WikiNews’ intention, to distribute the news gathering and editing process, is excellent, but the artifact produced should not be a single article, but an interface to dozens or hundreds of reports that allow the inquisitive reader to explore the many faces of events. A readership accustomed to this approach to the news may be more tolerant, more judicious and participate in the events that make news due to their increased confidence in their ability to embrace uncertainty than the modern human weaned on one or two major media sources.

MORE: Mark Glaser wants to work for a media company that is open and collaborative—an excellent complementary read to this piece. Question is, who wants to finance this? I know, having built ON24 to run on the smallest editorial budget imaginable for a 24/7 video news network, a lot of the ins and outs. There are clearly a ton of smart folks willing to participate. Who wants to put the money behind it?

Paid-to-blog; paid-to-write; write-to-live

The feedback begins to come in about the Marqui blogger campaign. Just a thought, following on my comments about the abrupt interview with a Globe and Mail journo last week: About 20 years ago, when I started trying to earn a living writing (it took eight years to reach a level where the bartending job could go by the wayside), there were writers making $2 and $3 a word, or more, and then there was me, making three cents to five cents a word. I got to the “elite” level, at which I made $2 or $3 a word, not for the money, but because I want to write and explain and think for a living.

Today, I’m back to probably less than five cents a word as a blogger, on average between what I pull down here and over at Red Herring, but there’s really no one making any more from their blogging (I still make a lot more when I write for pay, believe me). So, if there is nowhere to go but up for the entire market, it’s a pretty solid bet to start getting paid at current “standard” levels for bloggers. Maybe when I am 64, I’ll be making what I do today solely through blogging, which would be a great way to spend my “retirement,” because when I stop writing I expect the very first thing I’ll do is die.

MORE: Well, well, now we’re “shills” because there are ads on the blog and those of Marc, the Head Lemur and Richard, among others. This from Stowe Boyd, who has ads on his Corante blog and makes precisely the point I have about saying “thanks” to Marqui for the $800 bucks, that it doesn’t affect what he has to say about companies whose ads surround his prose.

I am not a purist who turns away from ads. On the contrary. But I think there needs to be a clear separation from content and commerce. I don’t say good things about Silkroad just because they are sponsoring my blog and the True Voice seminar series. Their ad occupies the upper right rectangle on the blog, and by all means, click through sometime and see what they have to offer. And if they don’t get enough traffic, I am sure that they will put their ad dollars elsewhere. But I am not being paid to write about Silkblogs once per week. And that distinction, although nuanced, is important.

Stowe admits what Marc, Lemur and I are doing is “not evil,” just a form of affiliate marketing, which really underscores how little effort to be honest about this goes into criticisms of the program. Stowe talks about how Corante created a disclosure for its relationship with Zero Degrees. Two years ago, I put a disclosure page on my blog that explains past and present business relationships. It smacks of the pot calling the kettle black, and awfully late.

He also focuses on the fact that Corante has “no incentives based on click throughs or sales” in contrast to Marqui’s program, which offers $50 per qualified lead to bloggers, which is still undefined and, frankly, not of interest to me. I’m not trying to sell Marqui’s product, but for some reason Stowe insists that judging this blog is different than judging the objectivity of his. It’s just not clear what that difference is, because he hasn’t made a case clearly as to what exactly that difference might be, though he insists there is some substantial nuance involved.

Of course Corante has incentives to increase click throughs, because most ad programs are priced based on click performance. Sorry, but the condescension here is just annoying, since the substance of the Marqui agreement seems to be identical to the ads placed on Stowe’s site, from the simple click through on the SilkRoad ad to the “free” seminar offer (Corante presumably gets some kind of compensation for promoting the conference, even if it is sponsorship placement at the event) that are clearly compensated placements or else they would not be on the page. I’ve been a publisher and editor and trade show producer, so let’s step back from the ledge (or “Get Real,” as Stowe’s blog is called) right here and now: Admit that publishers, especially early-stage publishing companies, exist on in-kind trades. If these are not “not evil,” how are they qualitatively different than what I am doing in relation to Marqui? I put a sponsorship graphic on my site and say thanks once a week, creating a kind of periodicity in the appearance of the company’s name in the blog, just as Corante creates a special section sponsored by Zero Degrees that features fresh links.

I suppose the Amazon links, for which I am compensated when someone buys a book I point them to makes me a two-dollar hooker? Does the fact that I write about issues involving companies I work with (always disclosing that fact) make me a $2,500-a-day prostitute? Stowe managed to mention his advertisers repeatedly in the posting, so what does that make him other than a writer writing about an issue he cares about? I care about my work, which is why I write about the stuff I do, too.

As a veteran of the tech trades, too, I can tell you that the ads placed in MacWEEK never influenced my coverage of companies there. My columns on ZD Net were written with total disinterest in what ads were appearing on the site. I’ve offended plenty of people and, basically, that’s what I get paid to do as often as not, because the function of a good reporter to put the truth out there, like it or not. As a commentator, I excel at pissing people off and if I start telling you Marqui is the only choice for communications management, you should recognize that I’ve gone stark raving mad with greed. I’m going to thank them once a week. I may even ask you to be nice enough to visit their site so that they keep delivering the checks, but I’m going to tell you when I think they make bad design and development decisions.

At every publication and at the ON24 Network, we’ve had a rigorous system for keeping ad people out of editorial (it only occasionally involved cattle prods) and as an editor at other publications I had to wrestle and still wrestle with the business side over the supposed influence of a dollar coming in the door. In the newsletter business, for instance, the battle is whether or not subscribers will get your honest opinion or simply get you to tell them what they want to hear so they can use it in their business presentations.

There are bloggers who rave about the free hardware they use, but don’t tell you it was free. There are bloggers who go on junkets and don’t disclose that their way was paid by a company they are suddenly in love with. There are reviewers who use and keep products, but never mention that they especially like to keep certain products for which they have become cheerleaders. We’re all human, but until Stowe actually explains a substantive difference between a flat $800-a-month sponsorship agreement and the various advertising and marketing programs his company offers, I’m going to reiterate that his accusation we Marqui-sponsored bloggers have become second-class citizens is not well-founded.

The proof will lie with the people on both sides of the argument, though I am not going to spend a lot of time and effort—probably none—policing the other guys, like Corante, since my focus is on what I want to write about. That’s where I’ll be judged and I’m perfectly content with that….

Cool—Casting about for everything; Dawn of the PJ

Feedster delivers Feedster.tv, rich media RSS feeds. Particularly interesting is the Enclosure Watch at the bottom of the page, which shows that in the roughly three months since RSS media enclosures capture public attention, 165,326 enclosures have been posted to the Web.

Here’s what will define success for the enterprising podcaster: Clever production and combinations of content that defy simple categorization. A podcast like Evil Genius Chronicles, which is about just about anything on Dave Slusher’s mind, may be talk, but it’s not just about tech or music or anything else. Say hello to Vague Verticals (in the marketing sense) defined by the breadth of subjects and the personality interested in those subjects instead of the narrowness of subjects covered by a program.

How long will it be until we start talking about PodJockeys—call them PJs, a la VJs from the introduction of MTV and DJs from the dawn of popular music on the airwaves?

Nightmare world

Flemming’s been watching the BBC and points to what sounds like an excellent documentary series, The Power of Nightmares: Baby, It’s Cold Outside. The thrust of the program is that both sides of the war between good and evil have nothing but disdain for those of us just living according to our own judgment.:

We track two movements: the U.S. Neo Conservatives and certain militant radical muslim factions. The videos do a good job at laying out their histories and philosophies and key players.

Ironically, their aims are very similar. They are groups that were horrified by the path that free societies seemed to take. What they deemed to be the moral corruption that they observed around them. Which they blamed on a society where anything goes and there were no uniform moral values. The moral decay of a liberal society. They first thought the fault was with the leaders of their societies. But they found that even when their own kind managed to seize power, it didn’t change things. So they blamed the people in their regions. It was simply that everybody were too dumb and corrupted to see the truth of how they were supposed to behave. Too much freedom, and too little to guide them. So they came up with the solution. Invent a battle between good and evil. Find an enemy and paint the most nightmarish possible visions of their sinister motives and the extent of their power. Mobilize your people against the enemy, driven by the fear of what they can do to you.

But in the late 90s it wasn’t really working for any of those groups. They had essentialy failed and had little public support anywhere. Until 2001 where both groups got an enormously lucky break. Somebody brought down the WTC. One group suddenly has the evil sinister enemy they had been seeking, and the other suddenly has the attention of millions of people, where before they didn’t.

After the old guard, no guard

With Bill Moyer’s retirement, PBS becomes a liberal-free zone dominated by inane punditry. What’s unfortunate is not that PBS is shifting to the right, but that people committed to asking smart and penetrating questions have moved from endangered status to extinction. Note what Moyer’s replacement, the only-competent David Brancaccio, formerly of public radio’s Marketplace says:

Being on Now, he says, feels like “somebody stuck you in an episode of The West Wing, only it’s real. Everyone here is overly briefed, overly articulate, and—here’s the key—trying to change the world.” He pauses for breath before continuing. “I am trying to change the world, only with a note of irony.”

A note of irony is not change, it’s commentary without commitment to anything in particular. It’s “Well, look, that happened and who would have thought?” instead of “Here is why this happened.” No number of cameras in the field adequately replaces insight if they are delivering only ironic observation.